‘Great Is The Artemis Of The Ephesians!’
So, as I said earlier, I recently returned from a six-day tour of the sites of the Seven Churches of Revelation. That image above is from a pillar in the ruins of the 6th century Basilica of St. John near Ephesus, where the Apostle was buried (nobody knows where his body is today). Here's the path we took:
It wasn't a religious trip, but rather one sponsored by the Turkish tourism office, for the sake of encouraging Christian tourism to the region. As an Orthodox Christian, though, it was primarily a religious pilgrimage for me. I wasn't sure what to expect visiting the ruins of these ancient cities. I was open to anything. I didn't know much at all about the early church in this region. They were not the only sites of early Christian churches, but the first-century Christian communities ("churches") in those cities were the ones addressed by Christ, through the prophet John the Theologian, in the opening chapters of Revelation.
To help myself understand better the context in which these short letters to the Seven Churches were issued, I had as my traveling companion the book Revelation For Everyone, by the well-respected Anglican bishop and scholar N.T. Wright. It's a very basic primer, but also useful for an amateur like me. Wright's view is that the apocalyptic book was intended to educate the Christians in that world about the nature of the conflict in which they found themselves immersed, and to strengthen them amid their present persecution, and the much worse persecution to come. John's vision, broadly speaking, told them that their present struggles against the Roman political and religious system were earthly aspect of a much greater spiritual battle. He told them that they would suffer terribly, and that many of them would die, but that they should not fear, because the battle had already been won ("the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David has triumphed" -- Rev. 5:5). Not that they would win, but that they have already won. Their sacrifices, even of their lives, for the sake of Christ were part of how the Lamb/Lion had defeated satanic evil.
I have never paid much attention to Revelation, mostly because I find it's dense symbolism impenetrable, but also because it's far too easy to get lost down apocalyptic rabbit holes. Nevertheless, reading Wright I saw a parallel between what he says John's mission is, and my own writing in The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies. I don't talk about End Times stuff in those books, but I do offer them as both an explanation to my Christian readers of the times we are in, and an exhortation to them to prepare spiritually and otherwise for suffering, such that we do not lose our faith in the trials to come. We may or may not be in the Apocalypse -- I don't take a position on that -- but we are unquestionably in a time of tribulation, one in which Christians (at least in the West) are going to increasingly be in a position like the early church's. I had hoped to learn something from this trip to Turkey about what the Christians there faced, how they dealt with it, and what lessons we Christians today might take from their experience.
I was not disappointed. Before I forget to say so, let me urge you readers to go visit these sites if you possibly can. I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did, and to profit from it spiritually as much as I have. The best thing to do, though, is to go on a guided tour, or to hire a private guide. You can do it on your own, but you'll be much better off with a knowledgeable guide. And given that relatively few Turks speak English, it's very helpful to have a native speaker along with you.
The first place we visited was the ruins of Ephesus, which was the leading city of the region when St. John wrote. An astonishing amount of the city has been excavated, though there is much more still to uncover. Here's a view of one of the city's main streets, leading down to its commercial center. In the distance, you can see the façade of the Library of Celsus, the third-largest library of the ancient world, behind Alexandria's and Pergamum's:
Servet, our guide, pointed out this carved graffito in a paving stone. He said it is a sign of Christian presence in the city, produced by persecuted Christians, to proclaim their presence in the pagan city. Within this image is a coded message testifying to Christ:
Here is Servet explaining the code with a drawing:
We would see this same symbol occur in some of the other cities we visited. But we first saw it in Ephesus.
I had not realized how overwhelming pagan religion was in that place, at that time. I had only a general knowledge of it. Artemis was the local goddess. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Artemis (to the Romans, Diana) was the Greek goddess of nature, and of the hunt. The Phyrigian Earth Mother goddess Cybele, whose worship was common in pre-Hellenic Anatolia, was absorbed into Artemis's cult. Cybele was a wild goddess of fertility. Her male priests, called galli, castrated themselves. As Vice says, in a laudatory article:
Whichever version they followed, all of Cybele’s priests (known as galli) performed voluntary self-castration in honor of Attis as their final initiation into the cult. Afterwards, they dressed in women's clothing and presented as women for the rest of their lives.
It is impossible to attempt to divine the gender identity of individuals after their death, especially when they came from a culture that constructed gender differently from our own. However, it is a reasonable assumption that, while some of the priests may well have been cis men who felt the divine call, many others were trans feminine people who recognized themselves in Cybele’s priesthood and found a space in which to embrace their true identity.
You see where this is going. More:
"The galli were a paradox,” says Morales. “Their extraordinary gender expression made them marginal and transgressive, but the official incorporation of their cult into Roman religion made them central and conferred legitimacy. They were both dehumanized because of their eunuch status and also close to divine because of their close relationship with the goddess."
Caesar Augustus, who reigned at the birth of Jesus, declared Cybele -- worshiped by the Romans as Magna Mater, or Great Mother -- to be the chief goddess of the Roman Empire. Though Artemis is not a direct copy of Cybele, again, aspects of the Phrygian goddess were assimilated into Artemis. When I walked the streets of Ephesus, I thought of Jonathan Cahn's book claiming that today, we are living through the reappearance of these ancient Near Eastern pagan gods. The extraordinary rise of transgenderism, with popular culture, driven by elites, celebrating transgendered people, and drag queens, and the widespread denigration of masculinity, is unmistakably pagan. It's all part of the rapid re-paganization of the post-Christian West. Here is the statue of the Artemis of the Ephesians:
It was her worship, and the worship of all the gods like her that Christ crushed. It was the worship of all these gods that Christ crushed. David Bentley Hart has written, in a powerful 2003 essay called “Christ And Nothing”:
Which brings me at last to my topic. “I am the Lord thy God,” says the First Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” For Israel this was first and foremost a demand of fidelity, by which God bound His people to Himself, even if in later years it became also a proclamation to the nations. To Christians, however, the commandment came through—and so was indissolubly bound to—Christ. As such, it was not simply a prohibition of foreign cults, but a call to arms, an assault upon the antique order of the heavens—a declaration of war upon the gods. All the world was to be evangelized and baptized, all idols torn down, all worship given over to the one God who, in these latter days, had sent His Son into the world for our salvation. It was a long and sometimes terrible conflict, occasionally exacting a fearful price in martyrs’ blood, but it was, by any just estimate, a victory: the temples of Zeus and Isis alike were finally deserted, both the paean and the dithyramb ceased to be sung, altars were bereft of their sacrifices, the sibyls fell silent, and ultimately all the glory, nobility, and cruelty of the ancient world lay supine at the feet of Christ the conqueror.
Nor, for early Christians, was this mere metaphor. When a gentile convert stood in the baptistery on Easter’s eve and, before descending naked into the waters, turned to the West to renounce the devil and the devil’s ministers, he was rejecting, and in fact reviling, the gods in bondage to whom he had languished all his life; and when he turned to the East to confess Christ, he was entrusting himself to the invincible hero who had plundered hell of its captives, overthrown death, subdued the powers of the air, and been raised the Lord of history. Life, for the early Church, was spiritual warfare; and no baptized Christian could doubt how great a transformation—of the self and the world—it was to consent to serve no other god than Him whom Christ revealed. [Emphasis mine — RD]
We are still at war, of course, but the situation of the Church has materially altered, and I suspect that, by comparison to the burden the First Commandment lays upon us today, the defeat of the ancient pantheon, and the elemental spirits, and the demons lurking behind them will prove to have been sublimely easy. For, as I say, we moderns believe in nothing: the nothingness of the will miraculously giving itself form by mastering the nothingness of the world. The gods, at least, were real, if distorted, intimations of the mysterium tremendum, and so could inspire something like holy dread or, occasionally, holy love. They were brutes, obviously, but often also benign despots, and all of us I think, in those secret corners of our souls where we are all monarchists, can appreciate a good despot, if he is sufficiently dashing and mysterious, and able to strike an attractive balance between capricious wrath and serene benevolence. Certainly the Olympians had panache, and a terrible beauty whose disappearance from the world was a bereavement to obdurately devout pagans. Moreover, in their very objectivity and supremacy over their worshipers, the gods gave the Church enemies with whom it could come to grips. Perhaps they were just so many gaudy veils and ornate brocades drawn across the abyss of night, death, and nature, but they had distinct shapes and established cults, and when their mysteries were abandoned, so were they.
How, though, to make war on nothingness, on the abyss itself, denuded of its mythic allure? It seems to me much easier to convince a man that he is in thrall to demons and offer him manumission than to convince him that he is a slave to himself and prisoner to his own will. Here is a god more elusive, protean, and indomitable than either Apollo or Dionysus; and whether he manifests himself in some demonic titanism of the will, like the mass delirium of the Third Reich, or simply in the mesmeric banality of consumer culture, his throne has been set in the very hearts of those he enslaves. And it is this god, I think, against whom the First Commandment calls us now to struggle.
Humankind can't live without a god. New Atheism is dead, dead, dead. In Ephesus, I came to believe that Jonathan Cahn is correct: that these old gods -- by which he, and I, mean actual demonic entities, not symbols -- are returning. We modern Americans, even American Christians, are completely unprepared for this.
I had a prickly discussion with one of the members of our group, an American Christian who said he didn’t understand wars of religion, and religious conflict. He described religious difference as an unimportant matter of personal preference — and did this in a way that is very familiar in 21st century American life. He seemed to think that the pagans of Ephesus had no reason to fear the Christians, and were mean to them for no reason. I politely challenged him, but after a few barbed exchanges, we dropped the subject. For the early church in Ephesus, this wasn’t a potayto-potahto issue.
Earlier in Acts 19, we read:
13 Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.
17 When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. 18 Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. 19 A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
The early Christians in the pagan world were hated because they really did represent a direct threat to the social and political order, which was built on religion. Had the Christians offered Jesus as a personal god, and added him to their pantheon, they would have faced no trouble. But they were bearers of a fundamentally Hebraic religion, and were monotheists. Had they been like the Jews, content to practice their religion among their tribesmen, they also likely wouldn't have had many problems. But they evangelized, and won converts from both Judaism and paganism. We see what a threat the Christians were in Acts 19, when an Ephesian silversmith named Demetrius tried to incite a pogrom against St. Paul and the disciples there. Demetrius made the reasonable point that if Christianity spread, people would stop worshipping their great goddess Artemis; what's more, he said, they would stop buying the silver idols of Artemis that the silversmiths made, and on which their prosperity was based. Eventually the crowd Demetrius whipped up went to the Great Theater:
28When the men heard this, they were enraged and began shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29Soon the whole city was in disarray. They rushed together into the theatre, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia.
30Paul wanted to go before the assembly, but the disciples would not allow him. 31Even some of Paul’s friends who were officials of the province of Asiah sent word to him, begging him not to venture into the theatre.
32Meanwhile the assembly was in turmoil. Some were shouting one thing and some another, and most of them did not even know why they were there. 33TheJews in the crowd pushed Alexander forward to explain himself, and he motioned for silence so he could make his defense to the people. 34But when they realized that he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
I went to that very theater, stood on the stage, and read this passage aloud. Here's the very stage in the theater where all of this took place. All those who shouted acclaim for Artemis of the Ephesians stood in these rows:
Well, again, the pagans were right to fear the Christians. I say that not to justify the horrific persecutions that were to come, but simply to point out that everything the Christians stood for was directly counter to everything the Artemis-worshipers stood for. St. Paul, and then St. John, in Revelation, sternly warned the local communities not to allow themselves to be assimilated into the pagan society around them. Think about where we are today, in the 21st century, and how many Christians allow themselves to be assimilated into all manner of "pagan" beliefs and practices -- and how even in liberal churches, they have abandoned clear Christian teaching, and incorporated the neopagan values of the post-Christian world into belief and practice. Some churches even have galli clergy and bishops. It was all there in Ephesus first!
But there is also in Ephesus evidence that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church (Tertullian). At the far side of the city are the remains of the St. Mary church, a vast complex dedicated to the Mother of God, where the Council of Ephesus was held in the summer of 431. It was here that the Nestorian heresy was defeated, and Christ's full humanity and full divinity was proclaimed by the title the council gave to Mary: Theotokos, or "God-bearer". You could say that in time, the triumph of Christianity successfully channeled the deep feeling people of this region had for a divine mother into reverence for the Mother of God. It Christianized the pagan faith. Now, to be sure, many Protestants say this is anathema, that the Church brought paganism into its life in this way. If that's true, I don't quite know how they deal with the fact that over a thousand years of Christian life and worship between this council and the Reformation was paganized. I take the Orthodox and Catholic view, of course: that the Church took what was good in paganism and made it authentically Christian. Orthodox and Catholics do not worship Mary as a goddess, but rather honor her as the greatest of all creatures.
Anyway, we went on to Pergamum, which was the imperial administrative center for Asia Minor. Atop the acropolis overlooking the city stood an impressive complex of temples, buildings, and a great library. But Jesus, speaking to the Pergamum church through St. John, said:
“I know that you live where Satan’s throne* is, and yet you hold fast to my name and have not denied your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was martyred among you, where Satan lives.
What did he mean by that? He meant that the Roman Empire was the means through which Satan ruled that part of the world. Jesus clearly identified Roman government and Roman religion with the Enemy. This is why Christians could not worship the Emperor, or any of the pagan deities. They would thereby be worshiping Satan.
I took this shot from the acropolis. You can see the modern Turkish city of Bergama down below. In the grove of trees is the base on which the altar of Zeus stood before German archaeologists stole it and took it to Berlin, where it can now be seen in the Pergamum Museum:
The thing that really stuck with me from all this is the key role sex played in the religious life of the Greco-Roman pagan world in which these tiny, persecuted churches struggled. I kept thinking about the Yale-trained classicist Sarah Ruden's great 2010 book, Paul Among The People, in which she explains why the sexual morality proclaimed by the saint -- that is, the sexual morality of Christianity -- was seen as liberating by slaves and women, and all those oppressed by Roman society and religion. Back in Budapest, I downloaded and began to read a 2013 book by the acclaimed historian Kyle Harper, titled From Shame To Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. I'm only about halfway through it, but Harper really and truly brings home how radically countercultural Christian sexual morality was in that world. He writes, of his book's narrative:
It moves across the late classical world, beginning in the high empire, when Christianity was no more than a faint voice in the vibrant, cacophonous world of the Roman Mediterranean, and ending in the haze of ruin and violent puritanism that characterized the reign of Justinian. Few periods of premodern history have witnessed such brisk and consequential ideological change. Sex was at the center of it all.
It's true for us too, isn't it? Philip Rieff observed that sexual morality was the linchpin of Christianity, the thing that most set it apart from paganism. Rieff, writing in the 1960s, said that the West was losing Christian sexual morality, and that the pastors of the era did not realize that they were going to lose far more than that. And indeed, it has come to pass.
Kyle Harper says that for the early church, the church of the Seven Churches of Revelation, "its sexual morality, through and through, is the sexual morality of a persecuted minority in strident dissent from mainstream society." See? You must not assimilate to the sexual norms of the pagans. That's because the body and the human person is something very different from what the pagans think it is.
Harper points out that sex and sexuality were a core feature of life in the Empire -- and that slaves were treated as subhuman sexual playthings of freeborn men:
Slave ownership was not just the preserve of such super-rich aristocrats, though; the sheer extent of slave owning meant that the mechanics of Roman sexuality were shaped by the presence of unfree bodies across the social spectrum. One in ten families in the empire owned slaves; the number in the towns was probably twice that. The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability. “If your loins are swollen, and there’s some homeborn slave boy or girl around where you can quickly stick it, would you rather burst with tension? Not I—I like an easy lay.” Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures: we learn in a book on dream interpretation that if a man dreams “he is stroking his genitals with his hands, he will obtain a slave or slave-woman.”
Nothing summarized the abject depravity of Tiberius as his use of young slave children on Capri. Nero’s reputation for philhellenism and debauchery fused in his three reputed marriages to eastern eunuchs. Eunuchs did in fact come to occupy an ever more important place in pederastic practices of the Roman Empire; Domitian, whose favorite was a eunuch cupbearer named Earinus, banned castration within the empire, but the transfrontier trade was able to pump eunuchs into the empire at a sufficient level that their prominence continued to gain into late antiquity. The outsized villainy of Commodus could be seen in his incest and voyeurism, his three hundred concubines, and his infamous behavior, in which he “polluted every part of his body and his mouth, with both sexes.”
Prostitution was a boom industry under Roman rule. In the densely urbanized and highly monetized economy of the Roman Empire, sex was a most basic and readily available commodity. Girls stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex. Brothels “were visible everywhere.” Companions, trained in various forms of entertainment, could be rented for domestic symposia. Sex was big business, and although pimps and procurers suffered legal and social stigmas, Roman law allowed slave owners to profit from a slave’s entrepreneurial activities, so that undoubtedly some rather illustrious households capitalized, discreetly, on the flesh trade. In the few surviving scraps of evidence for real working brothels, including a handful of papyri from Roman Egypt, what is most notable is the sheer sophistication of the financial instruments undergirding the sale of sex. Prostitution was an exuberant part of Roman capitalism.
The low price of sex is stunning. Sex seems to have cost maybe two asses in an ordinary town, “about the price of a loaf of bread.” Fellatio cost less. The vile rate of the transaction is also a harrowing indication of the crushing amount of work women had to perform to survive and to profit their owners. The commodification of sex was carried out with all the ruthless efficiency of an industrial operation, the unfree body bearing the pressures of insatiable market demand. In the brothel the prostitute’s body became, little by little, “like a corpse.”
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You get the point. The early Christians saw that every human being had dignity, as bearers of God's image. They saw that pagan sexual morality was cruel and vile, and they firmly stood against it. Once again, you see the threat that they posed to this social order -- a social order that was spiritually corrupt as well.
Just like us. When I see our own anti-Christian protesters, including Antifa, ranting against Christians for opposing abortion, or the sexualization and emasculation of children via Drag Queen Story Hour and transgender propaganda, I hear echoes across twenty centuries of the Ephesian mob chanting, "Great is the Artemis of the Ephesians!" in an effort to work themselves up into carrying out an anti-Christian pogrom.
This is how going to the Seven Churches of Revelation gave me a better understanding of our own time, and its challenges. Let the reader understand. The "winsome" strategy of some Christians today is absolutely no match for what we are up against. Read Live Not By Lies, and get ready. And if you can, go to Turkey to see these places for yourself. There is no substitute for being there.